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It’s looking like Moccia will win a fifth term

By Peter Berman

NORWALK, Conn. – Some five months before the mayoral election it’s increasingly clear that the Democrats face a daunting uphill challenge. The four challengers – a first for modern Norwalk – themselves evidence a disorganized Democratic Party widely viewed as the weakest among the states’ major cities. Especially, when one, former Town Clerk Andy Garfinkel, came close to victory last time around. No mayoral campaign beginning with four challengers has wrested victory in any of the state’s major cities in recent times. However, reportedly each of the four challengers has already raised substantial sums demonstrating seriousness of purpose. None of the challengers gives any evidence of just “going through the paces” with an eye to the future. And each has a substantial cadre of supporters.

Besides strong fund raising together the four challengers have offered a larger variety of OpEd’s dealing with a wide assortment of topics including better relations with Hartford, our dismal stagnated downtown economic development, a stagnant grand list, economic development, improved policing and better public school performance. Similarly in the “meet and greet” gathering earlier this month the candidates talked about economic development, violence prevention and education. Mr. Rilling offered to bring “transparency, openness and civility to government.”

What is surprising is that none of the four candidates have talked the usual “bread and butter” issue that typically surfaces in contested city elections – property taxes, home values and municipal salaries. None of the candidates have so far called attention to the recent 4 percent tax hike, stagnant home values amidst a resurgent housing market nationally and municipal salaries among the highest in the state. In one sense that’s not surprising. None of the Democrat challengers in the last four elections raised those issues and many remember the Democrat controlled state legislature’s unprecedentedly large recent tax hike. Plus the faltering recovery in a state widely reviewed as in financial disarray. One would think Mayor Moccia vulnerable on steadily raising taxes even during the Great Recession amidst unprecedented declines in residential property values.

Another unusual feature of the campaigns to date is that public education is largely off the radar. Most likely this reflects the unprecedented decision of the BOE to seek arbitration for the first time in 30 years. Not only did the Arbitration Award Panel freeze Norwalk teacher salaries for a year, saving the city $2.6 million, but it highlighted that city teachers were the fifth highest paid in the state, the consequences of much higher Norwalk property taxes in reducing property values relative to our neighboring towns and the unusually generous terms of teacher contracts dating back decades, e.g. City taxpayers paying benefits to ex-spouses of our public school teachers.

The Arbitration Award Panel substantiated what’s long been apparent to most attentive Norwalk citizens – relative to our modest family incomes our city over spends on public education and that overspending mostly goes to much higher salaries than in our surrounding towns – among the wealthiest in the nation.

An additional factor taking education off the radar is that under new leadership the BOE is performing admirably, much more so than in recent years if not decades and undertaking a search for a new Superintendent with sensitivity and professionalism.

Yet another factor are the recent revelations of the extraordinary hostile monthly bulletins (the Vanguard) published by the NFT (teacher’s union) sharply criticizing both BOE members and former Superintendent Marks. Why these vitriolic publications haven’t been reported upon earlier remains a mystery. Reportedly the NFT is the most hostile in the state and is urging members to vote against re-election of a pivotal member who helped secure the arbitration award. A recent sharply critical opinion piece by the chair of the administrator’s union underscored the hostility of Norwalk’s public school unions.

Yet another surprising feature of the campaign is that not much has been heard about the “under  ticket”, e.g. positions on Common Council and BOE. So far none of the candidates have put together a “team” of supporters seeking election. That’s not a promising development given Norwalk’s “weak mayor, strong Common Council” form of government. Even a new mayor with “strong vision” for moving Norwalk “forward” will find relatively little ability to marshal the forces necessary.

Nor have any of the candidates suggested they will review and make new department head appointments when they assume office. Again, that reluctance to suggest change reflects the long standing Norwalk tradition whereby department heads have de facto “tenure”. Change comes only with difficulty in Norwalk.

So far the GOP has remained quiet, especially Mayor Moccia. As in years past GOP Town Committee Chair Scialabba has launched powerful OpEd attacks against three candidates even going so far as suggesting that Mr. Rilling resign his post on the zoning commission. There’s no precedent for that demand by a party chief. Only former Town Clerk Andy Garfunkel awaits Mr. Scialabba’s wrath. Reportedly Norwalk is the only city in the state where an incumbent town committee chair carries the battle to the opposing side even before the candidates have been selected. That gives Mayor Moccia the aura of “elder statesman.”

By primary time the Democrats will then face the formidable hurdle of repairing the inevitable bruised egos and hurt feelings and uniting behind the chosen candidate. By that time the four candidates may well have raised about $100,000. That’s considerably more than was thought necessary not much more than a decade ago to wage a serious campaign by an incumbent. Since Norwalk’s GOP is among the most well established and entrenched GOP in the state the Democrats will face a fund raising challenge of the first magnitude. In effect the Democrats will be required to fund raise twice over.

The success of the Democrat’s uphill battle may also depend on the willingness of the state party’s formidable team to assist with both money and professional support. Making available a “big name” campaign professional to manage the selected mayoral candidate’s campaign in a highly professional matter could be of enormous importance. Recent Democrat campaigns in Norwalk have had neither major support from the state party nor the assistance of a highly valued prominent professional campaign manager. Local campaigning by Governor Malloy could make a big difference.

One sign of whether Mayor Moccia will face a serious challenge is whether the Democrat candidate selected to carry the party’s banner will hoist a sharply focused campaign on just three or four major issues likely to raise a strong following. Driving around town and noting the sheer numbers of “for sale” signs and retired residents anxious to sell out and move away ought to convince at least one Democrat candidate that substantial numbers of local residents are ill equipped to suffer continued tax hikes amidst prospects of stagnant to declining housing values. Similarly with the average municipal salary and benefits at about $100,000 with dozens of $150,000 administrators the salary structure is our municipal employees is running amok. One wonders whether any of elected or appointed officials are watching contract negotiations. Surely they’re out to lunch with our school teacher demands.

In closing, a four term incumbent is always vulnerable. But the residual fallout from four challengers battling it out may well take out much of the steam of the challenge. And if the selected Democrat champion follows the usual local party script of avoiding taxes, property values and municipal salaries then the odds are pretty good that Mayor Moccia will have a fifth term. At this date the smart money is betting on Mayor Moccia by a margin greater than last time’s narrow win. And that the failure of the party to gather around one candidate without going through a bruising primary battle predetermined another lost opportunity.

 

Sincerely,

 

Peter I Berman

 

Comments

9 responses to “It’s looking like Moccia will win a fifth term”

  1. Suzanne

    While I agree with Mr. Berman in his examination of points not being made nor positions taken regarding salaries, taxes and teacher’s union, among others, the title of this article belies the political process that takes place everytime there is a national election. Candidates of the same party rip each other to shreds, one wins, then they all stand on the same side of the aisle with more or less support for the winning candidate. They know it is politic for their party, it is NOT personal, to support the primary winner. Please do not suggest an ugly process to the primaries will result in another term for Mayor Moccia. If the Democratic candidates have any principled party spirit at all, they know standing together post primary is crucial for their side to win making Mr. Moccia hardly a “shoe-in.”

  2. Rod Lopez-Fabrega

    One has to agree with almost everything Mr. Berman has to say in criticism of the Norwalk Democrats.

    However, it would seem to an unbiased observer (if there is such a thing) that the first task Norwalk Democrats have is to select the candidate who is most likely to dislodge the stranglehold the Republicans have had on city hall for quite a long time. It’s Moccia for another term, as Berman points out, if all the four Demo candidates end up doing is to form a circular firing squad as we saw the Republicans do during the last national election while they so efficiently self-destructed.

    Once that choice is made, the details of a future vision for improving things in Norwalk had better come out in a believable and convincing and realistic fashion.

    Finally, it is up to the Democrats to find a way to wake up the absent Democrat electorate in this town. For a city with far more registered Democrats than there are registered Republicans, we have to ask, “Where are you, Democrats when the tire hits the road?”

  3. Suzanne

    Amen to that – the biggest difference between Democrats and Republicans? The latter make it to the polls, the former don’t.

  4. 0ldtimer

    Mr Berman’s predictions do not have to come true. If the Democratic candidates campaign about how each will be a better mayor than the incumbent and avoid attacking each other. Moccia is vulnerable on many issues and he should be attacked on those issues. If any of the other candidates fails to focus his attack on Moccia, rather than another Democrat, there would be some chance Moccia could get another term.
    Somebody needs to ask where all the money from the Island Belle went, or why Moccia has kept a convicted felon on the Oak Hills Board, knowing he was convicted for stealing from another City commission, or, where is all the money from privatizing garbage and recycling.

  5. Tim T

    Old Timer is 100 percent on the money on this matter. Moccia is depending on the dems fighting with themselves and forcing a primary along with the dem that doesn’t get the nomination as running as an independent. The thing that I find odd is how andy came so close to defeating Moccia last time around and this time the dems seem to have thrown him to the wolvess. Also I find it strange how Andy is running a very low key campaign.

  6. Hobbes.the.Calvinist

    Not since the Grand Wizard of Wrestling predicted that Stan the Man Stasiak would defeat Bruno Sammartino has such a grand prediction come with so few facts, but oh so much entertainment value.

    Maybe it’s just that Berman won’t let anyone get a word in edgewise. If he stopped talking, he’d hear people agreeing with his attacks of the Mayor’s campaign manager. Lots of people like him are sick and tired of Moccia’s hitmen taking cheap shots at any opponent. In the end, people blame the candidate for these attacks and it will cost Moccia.

  7. rburnett

    God help us!!! That is all I can say. Being stuck for two or maybe four more years with lack of leadership and lack of vision will truly be the end of Norwalk!!!

  8. Piberman

    Thank you all for your comments. On paper the Democrats have powerful advantages against a 4 term incumbent: nearly twice the numbers of registered voters compared to Republicans, roughly 16k versus 9k with about 20k not affiliated; a powerful state organization with money, well known names and plenty of campaign professionals; and a list of powerful campaign themes almost a yard long. While 4 candidates presents a number of problems to date we have not seen a vigorous display of campaign themes galvanizing the public. Witness the rather placid OpEds. Every successful campaign requires no more than 3 or 4 powerful points to galvanize the public. One suspects, and I have no inside info here, that as yet none of the candidates has hired a major league professional campaign manager. With but 5 months there’s no visible evidence of fund raising, mailings, nailing down speaking engagements, etc.

    I am troubled but the near absence of letters demanding change, supporting particular candidates and so forth to date. That may reflect disenchantment with local news coverage by our mainstream news media here in Norwalk. And, I’m troubled by the willingness of that organization to publish every OpEd by Mr. Scialabba attacking every candidate while Mayor Moccia rests securely away from public scrutiny. Nor have we seen any real discussion of major issues. At times I wonder whether there’s a mayoral election here in Norwalk.

    Let me raise one concern that greatly troubles me. Most well informed Norwalk citizens understand the implications of our excessive teacher salaries – 5th highest in the state and higher than any other city – on our stagnant property values and property taxes. This unholy trio was discussed at length by the BOE Arbitration Award Panel’s Report. And the Moccia team is vulnerable here having raised taxes even throughout the Great Recession and this year despite two back to back years of a stagnant Grand List.

    Here’s the wrinkle. When one candidate, Mr. Miklave, a ten year Council veteran and labor lawyer takes aboard the head of the Public School Administrators Union into his team as Treasurer that suggests he’s trying to induce support of the government unions. And when Mr. Ditrio castigates City officials for not spending more our public schools – ignoring the evidence that relative to our income and property values we over spend – then having Mr. Ditrio aboard casts a broad shadow. Democrats are just waiting to spend big sums on public schools and raise taxes. How Mr. Miklave believes he can secure either the Party’s nomination or the general election on such a plan is hard to fathom. No doubt during the election the GOP will cite Mr. Ditrio’s role with relish no matter the Party nominee.

    Looking back some 30 years neither party holds a major edge in spending and tax hikes although Esposito’s record of almost unmatched avoidance of tax hikes was exceptional. And the public is sensitive to the recent tax hikes coming out of Democrat controlled Hartford.

    A second concern of mine is that in recent years (decades) Norwalk Democrats haven’t done their homework preparing position papers and raising awareness of their “under tickets”. Getting up and speaking seems their strategy. That’s unfortunate because they have a lot to learn from then Mayoral Candidate Malloy running in Stamford. Malloy’s team put together a detailed issues binder to buttress their platform. Their candidate was fully versed about the City’s finances and budget.

    No other big city mayoral candidate in Connecticut had ever to the best of our knowledge put together a detailed issues binder and assembled an “issues team”. Malloy’s team did a superb job. Indeed, it was so good that we obtained a copy for the Rowland campaign and played copy cat.

    At day’s end I often wonder whether Norwalk Democrats want a change in City administration hard enough to get down and do the tough work required of any serious campaign effort. Where is the OpEd or issues paper that makes people stand up and say “this candidate understands what’s wrong with our City and how to fix it ?”

    So what would Democrats do if they win ? Deep down I doubt whether any of the candidates have thought that far in advance. And who would be on their team ? Would they use the same out of date Dept. heads ? What would the new Mayor’s role be with the BOE ?

    There’s lot to do. No City with only modest incomes can avoid the property devaluation consequences of funding teacher salaries 5th highest in the state, regiments of 150k administrators, City employees now averaging 100k in salaries and benefits. Simply drive around an compare the “for sale” signs in Norwalk with surrounding towns. Ask why when housing values are moving higher across the country Norwalk remains stagnant.

    The facts are that when it comes time to do labor negotiations our City officials haven’t done the job. High municipal salaries translate into high property taxes and declining property values. Its not rocket science. And anyone who thinks “being nicer or more friendly to business” is going to boost the Grand List and save our hides is smoking.

    But the candidates are as a group not interested in finance or taxes or the City budget. And so the outcome shouldn’t surprise us.

    Before leaving there is one bright spot. The BOE has the most capable Chairman I can recall ever in my 30 years. With the best resume of City service anywhere. So why isn’t the Democratic Party pounding the pavement to put up strong candidates to replace several of the less capable candidates coming for re-election on the BOE ? Beats me.

    Last thought. No community remains well governed without a capable news organization willing to do their homework. If there’s a positive development that’s under appreciated its the appearance of alternative news organizations in our City that are making a powerful difference. They deserve our support. No one governs capably in a vacuum.

  9. Old timer

    All the money being raised by the democrats suggests an “anyone but moccia” feeling throughout the community. Some of it is coming from life-long republicans, embarrassed by Moccia’s erratic behavior.

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